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Tweet the crash

Social media allows us to experience extended tragedy in real-time.

Last Saturday, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash landed at San Francisco International Airport. Plane travel is often considered the safest form of transportation; however, the occasional mishap does occur, and it normally gives flyers a short pause. Fortunately, there was minimal tragedy caused by the crash with the death of only two individuals. While all death is certainly tragic, the consequences of the crash could have been much worse.

Social media has given rise to the rapid dissemination of information about tragic and life-changing events around the world. From coup d’états to crime to violent protests, often all you need to do is log onto your favorite social media site and you can get a handle on the situation. The speed and reach of social media is not something to be dismissed or underestimated. Despite this, I was surprised to see a picture of a downed commercial airplane zoom across my Twitter feed. I am accustomed to seeing shocking images via social media, but there was something about seeing a smoking downed airplane that made me queasy.

David Eun, an executive at Samsung who was on the flight, tweeted: “I just crashed landed at SFO. Tailed ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m okay. Surreal…” A photo of the airplane he was on with smoke billowing out and the tail missing followed his tweet. People were trailing off in the photo, heading to the terminal. It’s certainly a “surreal” photo, or it feels surreal to me. It reminds me of the fragile nature of the machines we rely on.

Perhaps most disheartening wasn’t the crash itself but the reaction of some traditional news media. A reporter on CNN expressed disbelief that passengers were tweeting photos. Of course, news outlets like CNN traditionally held the domain over such news and regulated what viewers watched. This isn’t the case anymore. What does it matter that photos were tweeted? The old paradigm has changed.

We see this change enacted over and over. The Arab Spring turned protestors into citizen-journalists tweeting for freedom. The protestors were able to give insight into areas that traditional reporters couldn’t. That’s good. It’s a hallmark of 21st century society that citizens are both witnesses to history and participants in it. The photo that Eun tweeted shocked me, but I’m thankful that I saw it.

Along with access to information, social media has created a new way of thinking and communicating. Is it now the responsibility of citizens to broadcast tragedy so it may be recorded? Was it Eun’s responsibility to post a photo of his downed airplane? Of course not. People are entitled to their own choices. However, would the impact of this airplane crash have been lessened had Eun not tweeted a photo? I’m not sure.

There have been many other plane crashes, but not many of them have been as broadcasted by people who were once on those planes. It’s a rarity for so many to survive, so it’s particularly unusual to see photos from surviving passengers. Considering how much social media has changed our interaction with news, I can’t imagine not seeing photographic evidence of a plane crash on Twitter. That’s one of the great things about Twitter: it shows you things you would never have seen 50 years ago.

The airplane crash was terrible, and it will certainly give me bad dreams and pause the next time I fly. However, I know that this is how information is accessed in the 21st century. It is fluid, fast-moving and uncensored. It is often unverified, at least until it shows up on your local news station. The role of the citizen is now to create raw information, and social media is the citizenry’s greatest tool to do so. I can only hope that traditional media will curate and verify. 

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